Sports games — some of the only events that lead Americans to set their differences aside and sit down and watch together — have become stages for large-scale patriotic theater. This is no accident; many of the militaristic rituals we see in stadiums and arenas across the country were deliberately designed to promote unity during times of crisis. But they’ve stuck around far longer than needed, making sports feel less like pastimes than pep rallies for our military or a particular war. …

Sure, it’s a thrill for fans in the stadium. But such vaudeville quiets political dissent. …

By refusing to participate in patriotic gimmickry because of their objections to U.S. policy, these athletes were exercising their constitutional right to dissent. Still, their teams, leagues and crowds tried to silence them. That’s their right, too, of course. But somehow, a country founded on rebellion finds not standing for an anthem or saluting a flag un-American.

The militarism of our sporting events is particularly jarring given American ambivalence about the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a 2010 poll, 59 percent of Americans said the war in Iraq was a mistake, and 72 percent said it was not worth the costs. In May 2012, a poll showed that support for the war in Afghanistan had dropped to a new low: Only 27 percent of Americans said they backed the conflict, and 66 percent said they opposed it.